At left, Green Bay Packers cornerback Tramon Williams (38) covers Packers receiver Patrick Williams (18) during training camp practice at Ray Nitschke Field on Saturday, July 31, 2010. / File/Press-Gazette
Mike McCarthy’s decision to give the punt return job to Tramon Williams, one of his starting cornerbacks, can mean only one thing: He’s going all in this season.
The Green Bay Packers coach eschewed the conservative route and decided to roll the dice. It’s a gamble because of how thin the roster is at cornerback and how important Williams is to the defense.
Already, the Packers are without long-time starter Al Harris, who is opening the season on the physically unable to perform list because his surgically repaired knee isn’t ready. He’ll miss at least the first six games. Second-year pro Brandon Underwood, the likely No. 3 cornerback in the nickel defense, probably won’t play in Sunday’s regular-season opener at Philadelphia, either. That means rookie Sam Shields, who made the team as an undrafted free agent, could be the number three cornerback in Week 1.
Any further injuries in the secondary could be debilitating.
When the Packers put their top return man, Will Blackmon, on injured reserved on Saturday and gave him an injury settlement, meaning he will be released soon, it left them in a bind for a returner. Backup receiver Jordy Nelson will handle kickoff returns, even though he fumbled one in the wild-card playoff loss to Arizona last season and then got benched as a returner for the rest of that game.
McCarthy and special teams coordinator Shawn Slocum could have gone the conservative route and used Nelson on punt returns, too. Instead, they decided to go with Williams and named starting receiver Greg Jennings as the backup punt returner.
“I think some of the decisions I made in ’07 were probably the most aggressive decisions from a personnel standpoint, and that was the healthiest team I’ve coached,” McCarthy said Monday. “Does that play hand in hand? Who has the answers to those questions? But we’re going to line up, and we’re going to win football games, and I’m talking about all three phases. So we’re going to have the best returner possible back there.”
In their 13-3 season in 2007, McCarthy used star cornerback Charles Woodson as his primary punt returner. Williams and Blackmon also took turns, and Williams split kickoff return duties with Koren Robinson. Williams had a 94-yard punt return for a touchdown against Carolina that season, but that was on somewhat of a trick play, when the Panthers lined up for a field goal but pooch punted out of that formation.
Williams didn’t do any returning in 2008, when Blackmon was the primary returner, and had 13 punt returns and two kickoff returns last year. On 19 career punt returns, he has an average of 13.3 yards – a figure that would have ranked second in the NFC last season.
“At this point, I don’t think (anyone) else is coming in here, so I’ll most likely be back there,” Williams said. “It’s not a problem though. I’m ready for it. It’s something I’ve done in the past. It’s nothing new.”
Don’t expect Williams to just stand back there and call for fair catches.
“I’ve never been the type of guy who takes the conservative way out,” Williams said. “In my book, that’s the way people get hurt, trying to be safe. Just go out and play.”
Fatigue could also be a concern. There surely will be possessions in which Williams is on the field for lengthy drives and then will have to immediately return a punt.
“I don’t think that will be a problem,” he said. “I think I’ll be prepared for that and in shape for that.”
Meanwhile, Nelson is looking forward to another crack at the kick return job. There were some bright spots last season, when he averaged 25.4 yards on 25 returns in the regular season. His long return was 54 yards. He had a 99-yard return for a touchdown against the Detroit Lions on the opening kickoff called back because of a penalty. In that same game, he muffed a punt return and sprained his knee on the play. That injury kept him out the next three games.
Nelson wasn’t a kickoff returner in college at Kansas State, so the third-year pro doesn’t have a wealth of experience.
“You always want more shots, more opportunities,” Nelson said. “I’ve only done kickoff returns for two years, and it’s been the two years here. I think I’m still learning. I had two fumbles last year that are unacceptable. But besides that, I think I did a solid job. If the one against Detroit that I returned for a touchdown but got called back, if that would have stood, I think the stats would have looked different. It just takes one big play, and it changes a lot.”